Words that I write

Words that I write...

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The love of the land

This last year has been a period of change; settling back into a country, a life here. I had no idea where it would take me when I first stepped off the aeroplane, but 12 months later I find myself firmly ensconced in Bristol once again, a wonderful group of friends to hand, made up of a pleasing mix of old and new faces. I have not one, but three jobs I adore and that utilise my skills and challenge me in new and different ways. I make time to write, and sometimes the words come out. I’m pushing myself outside my comfort zone and happy to see the evolving nature of the work that pours forth. 

But most of all, over the last year, I’ve fallen, quite honestly, totally head over heels in love with this land. I’ve always held a certain regard for the countryside; childhood life took me on daily walks, and my twenties saw me roaming out into its reaches with increasing regularity. But this last year I’ve fallen hard. 

At first, the farm visits took me beyond the city limits, leading me down winding country lanes and to places I didn’t even know existed; I started to see that behind the hedgerows and gates, another world existed. Walks up north with my sister took me onto moorland and the wildness there reminded me why I’d begun to love walking so much in Canada. I started to disappear off occasionally at weekends, utilising a collection of walks and maps my sister had cut out of magazines for me, slowly learning the landscape that existed outside the city limits.

Then in May I had an urge to venture on my own for more than just a day trip. I headed to Pembrokeshire, and my  planned four days of writing turned into four days of walking as I delighted in the coast path that stretched endlessly in front of me. I conquered my fear of not being able to do it. I walked 12 mile days, then got up the next morning and relished the next section with excitement. From that point on, it became an almost weekly occurrence. I would grab my walking boots, stuff a few snacks in a daypack and head for the hills. 6 miles no longer seemed enough, barely a leg stretch, and 8 or 10 miles became the norm. I sometimes invited company but, more often than not, sought the solitude that walking alone brings. The headspace proved the perfect antidote to the fullness of city life. 

What started out as a remedy to maintain my mental health then evolved further. I started to stop and observe my surroundings. I delved into the writings of Robert Macfarlane and began seeing the countryside with eyes anew. I began looking for the words to describe what I saw, my love of language connecting with my love of nature. I saw beauty everywhere. The rolling hills with a lattice of fields and hedgerows that harked back to land divisions centuries old. The coast paths that wound their way through alliterating headlands and bays, continuing in an eternal loop of our island. The gullies that provide solace and hidden worlds, deep in their chasms. The changing landscape, both with the passing of the seasons but also with increases in altitude and altered topography. On the same walk I observed the end of blackberry season in one section, the fullness of the berries in another, and bushes covered in the unripe redness in a third. 

I began to witness the wildlife that was there all along. From the humble dung beetle on a mission to somewhere only it knows, to a kestrel tucking into its prey nervously at the edge of a clearing. I paused to watch deer as they cross my path, and file away a magical moment of shared eye contact with a reclusive fox as it crossed a road ahead of me. I saw the bees hunting for nectar and the dragonflies lining streams. I started to notice the geology of the landscape; curious formations of rocks on coastlines and beaches. I found myself stopping to touch things, to feel the difference between the rocks I see.

All of this was there before, but my mind was not. I was too distracted by my own thoughts or lost in conversation to notice it. I’ve begun to choose the path less hurried; possibly why I’ve come to favour my own company when walking, so I can stop and pause without having to explain. I sometimes pick odd stops for breaks; sheltering under a lone oak tree so I can watch the grey clouds rolling in. I find myself favouring walks where the journey is the point, avoiding those where the peak is the aim of the walk; a coast path is a constant constellation of new perspectives, with each twist and turn bringing unexpected angles and surprises.

I am thankful to have found this. To discover happiness in an old woods, inhabited by a familiar cast of trees and shrubs. To find wonder in the waves crashing on cliffs and the salty air on my lips. To feel free on a moor, buffeted by the wind and smelling the floral scent of heather. To be content wandering down country lanes and observing the immense variety of plant and animals in the hedgerows around me. To know peace, sat by a river. To find love around every corner. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Gully

The entrance to the gully stands before me in stark contrast to the open grassy fields on either side. Its passage up the hill is marked by its deep green colour lent by the stand of trees that line each side. I start walking and it encloses me quickly with each step, its deepening sides lined with long green crinkled fern leaves and a carpet of dark glossy ivy. It's a blustery day but the wind is warm, the last vestige of the summer heat. Above me, the wind sings through the trees; a high pitched rustle of the small leaves in harmony with the low slow boom of wavering bows. 

A small amount of sunlight filters through the branches overhead, leaving an ever moving dappled pattern on the rocky path underfoot. There's a gentle crunch with each step as my feet tread on the first of this years autumn leaves, their yellows and browns contrasting with the vibrant green of the gully walls. The gully narrows around me as I continue climbing. A beech tree clings to one bank, clutching onto the hillside with a tangled mess of roots as it tries to hold back the inevitable decline.

There's something otherworldly about a gully, the tall sides enclosing a narrow channel from the outside world. Sound doesn't permeate here. Time seems slower, unhurried, as it creates its own mini ecosystem. I'm relieved to have this path to myself, the magic unbroken by the intrusion of the outside world. 

As I climb higher, above me fallen trees span the gully width, creating swathes of shadow and a semblance of a roof to this passageway. On these beams begins a new generation of growth; vines weave a thick tangle over the trunks and small seedlings take hold in the boughs. They casts the illusion of a tunnel ahead, and I am drawn to keep walking into its heart.  

All too soon, I burst out into a clearing. To my right lies a patch of quarried gravel and to my left a stack of recently felled timber taller than my head. These serve as an abrupt reminder of the world beyond, and I withdraw into the gully's embrace for a few minutes longer. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Portraits in Passing #2: The Pianists

I don’t want to be here. The train station is heaving with people and noise, and there’s nowhere to sit. 

I hear music and it momentarily calms me, centres. There’s a piano in the foyer, pushed up against a lift shaft. An old man is playing, his hat and scarf laid on top as if they belong there. There’s a scrap of paper in front of him with a list of songs on it, suggesting this is planned rather than impulsive. His hands run over the keys with the familiarity of decades. In between songs, he eagerly asks the listeners where they’re going, where their journey is taking them. I sense he comes here from time to time, maybe regularly, perhaps trying to counter a loneliness he feels. He looks happy for these moments, banging out show tunes and classic favourites. He’s playing for the crowd and a group gather around to listen to his gift to them.

An hour or so later I’m sat the other side of the lift shaft, reading a book. I hear a flurry of music; a soulful version of Summertime being played on the piano. I can’t see who’s playing, but it’s simply wonderful. I stop reading, unable to continue whens such beauty is being created. I sit, listening to the music and the talent that lurks behind every note. All too soon it ends, and I am dragged back to reality. Through the glass I can just see the top of a man’s head as he stands up to go, leaving a small crowd applauding behind him. He darts around the corner, and I see him fully for the first time; a smartly dressed business man in a suit, clutching his briefcase. His head is ducked, but I see the smile on his face; he plays for himself. 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Portraits in Passing #1 : Stanley

I sit in your seat on the train by accident, carelessly not checking if it has been reserved. You’re very sweet about it, and offer to take the one next to me instead, despite me claiming the prime window territory. I point out I’m getting off at the next station, and you can have your seat back then and we settle into our respective locations with a smile.

We sit in silence for a while; me staring out the window and you rustling with some paperwork. I notice you’re reading a booklet about dietary advice, and I notice you sighing as you turn the pages, your worn hands shaking a little as your turn the page. You want to talk and I am a willing recipient of attempts at conversation. We try a few topics; my living in Bristol, your love of cricket, the coldness of the train station, but none quiet stick. 

You tell me that you’re struggling to eat well since your wife has died, that you struggle to eat vegetables beyond carrots, potatoes and beans. 59 years and 7 months you were married for. You briefly make eye contact as you tell me how she had dementia for the last few years.

I tell you I’m sorry to hear that, and I mean it. I can see the sadness in your eyes for a moment, but they brighten when you tell me that you recently met a woman. Her name is Rosemary, and you tell me how you met; that the moment you saw her you knew she was the one, the same as with your wife. She’s 10 years younger than your 88 years you tell me with a smile. You’re going on holiday to Shetland together in a few weeks time, a place you’ve been before but she never has. And you speak on the phone every morning at 8am.

It brings tears to my eyes, to hear you talk of the wife you loved and lost, and the woman you love and have found. You’ve got things pretty good, you admit, as I get up for my stop. Yes Stanley, you have. 

Monday, 22 August 2016

The River

My visit begins and ends at the river. It's neither intentional nor accidental; it just is.

I feel the draw as soon as I arrive in the valley and catch my first glimpse of the water that streams through its heart. With hugs and greetings out of the way, I head towards its waters with the delight of seeing a long lost friend. The path that leads the way has subtly changed; the gardens altered with passing of the months and a new gate bolt that momentarily halts my progress. But the way is still familiar, walked several hundred times before.

I didn't realise what I'd been missing until I sink into its cool waters. I return home in its embrace and let go, released and remembered. Every stroke takes me further into the feeling of peace and I forget about all that has passed and is to come. I heal.

I've swum in countless spots along this river, but no other draws me back like this place. Every time I feel the same wonder as the first. Each visit has a unique magic. These waters have washed countless tears from my eyes, heard my laughter echo across its surface, born witness to the birth and deepening of countless friendships, listened to my secrets, and held me when I didn't know where to turn. I have watched it change with the seasons; the snow capped beach in winter that bore my first chilly dip of the year, the swell and flood caused by snow melt that renders this spot temporarily hidden, and the slow moving waters of the late summer, where twisting currents cause wonderful eddies that spin you in unexpected paths through the water.

Over the week on the farm I return at least daily. I reach points of peak stress with the festival work, when I don't know how to carry on. But the river draws me back; it centres and grounds me. It always has the answer. The worries and difficulties suddenly seem surmountable. Restored and replenished I return to my task.

During the festival, I sneak down to the beach in the early hours of the morning. During the day I've been sharing the space with countless other people, but now I revel in the experience of it being just mine, even for a few minutes. I listen to the music rolling down the banks from the stage, my friends voices entwining with the gurgling water of the river. I lie back and watch the meteor shower above, and experience one of those rare moments of true contentment. Then I cry for the river; I cry for everything it has given me; the joy and the healing. I cry because it's no longer a daily part of my life and I miss it so. I cry because I can't have both there and here.

On my last night I head down to the shores with new friends, people I didn't know during that first swim. People who've been drawn to this place and this land like I have. People who, like me, love this river. And for a moment, we share in its beauty.

In the chaos of leaving on my final morning, I find a moment to slip away. I walk across the rocky stones to my favourite corner, where the cool waters drop away quickly to become a deep, currentless pool. I undress quickly, feeling more comfortable here in my nakedness than anywhere else, and step into the waters that still hold a little of the night's chill. I duck completely under, holding myself down for a split second as I focus on the future; what I want to take from here. I come up, clean and renewed and ready to face the world once more.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Dear Stephanie Louise

A letter from Stephanie Louise, aged 31, to Stephanie Louise, aged 13

Dear Stephanie Louise, 13 years old
I've come to give you hope, for as the year's unfold
Things get much brighter, from under the cloud
Of these difficult years, you will deshroud
The oppressive guilt, the never good enough
That hurts to the core, though you act tough.
You'll surround yourself with friends and family
Who build you up and encourage regularly
To have confidence in yourself and you'll start to see
How great you are and so powerfully
You'll learn to shed that guilt and fear of doing wrong
In every situation that comes along.

Life gets so much better when you leave school
And you suddenly realise that the clique that was cool
And hip and the people that you looked up to
Fall by the wayside in life, but you
Will blossom and grow, as you set out
On the path of life, finally free and without
The angst and pain of gossip and peers
Who look down on you, make you disappear
And vanish from the face of the earth
But after school ends, this'll all disperse
And you will find yourself with friends anew
Who think you're awesome and love the true
You that you've been hiding so deep inside
And now unleash upon the whole big wide
World and find she's liked so much
And appreciated by people armed with such
Love for you and those friendships made
Stand the test of time and the hurt will fade
Into the past, til it's only memories
And you form new ones, with happy stories.

Love your body because you're beautiful
Keep telling yourself that every day until
Beyond the words you start to believe
The truth that's there for all to see.
Don't judge yourself through society's eyes
Don't feel a lesser person because your size
Is larger than the average girl
Feel good in your skin and let your light unfurl
And be open to other's love for you
Because I tell you darling, it is true
That we receive the love we think we deserve
So dig in deep and drop your reserve
And your cloud of shame, don't believe that shit
Your body is yours so learn to own it
Cos fat or thin just let your heart be true
And attractiveness will shine from you.
Love your body, and find comfort in your skin
Have pride in your curves and your beauty within.

Now don't believe the things they tell you at Church
The Sunday songs that cause your heart to lurch
With joy for a glimpse of hope in life
Some place beyond the daily strife
Of seeking love and acceptance in someone's eyes
But please don't pause and believe the lies
And promises that religion claims
Cos I tell you that once through the haze
Of incense smoke and heartfelt prayers
Lies guilt and oppression, stacked up in layers
That'll hold you back from who you can be
And try to stop you from ever being free.
So take that big leap into the unknown
When the seeds of doubt and truth are sown
Be brave and strong and look deep and hard
As you question exactly what transpired
When you knelt down low with your hands pressed tight
Earnestly feeling that something aint right.
So take that faith and put it somewhere new
A place that you're not constantly being preached to
And taught that you are inherently flawed
By a far and distant fatherly Lord.
Take some time instead to love the earth and sea
See the problems entrenched in our society
And focus your efforts into building instead
A world in which we can all be fed.

And I tell you now, that you're good at things
Not just maths and all those school based rings
And hoops that you always leap right through.
No this stuff is your deep down true
Gifts and strengths, your reason to be
Your contribution to the world truly
Is something rare, these things are only yours
And they're far beyond your grades and scores
That your strive towards, seeking praise
That you'll never receive no matter how high you raise
Those numbers, so seek value and love instead
In the lives you touch, in the way you've led
Your life and the principles you strongly uphold
Your grace as situations evolve and unfold
In ways unplanned, but just try and go with the flow
And worry less about the things you don't know.
Your smile and love bring joy to those around,
Your laughter lights up faces at its sound
And your enthusiasm will spread and infect
Those people around you and then connect
These folk with others and you'll then start to see
The power of just being simple you and me.

So Stephanie Louise, 13 years young,
Your life is hard, and now it seems to be hung
So unbalanced and the road ahead so hard
But keep on fighting even when you get tired
And can't see the point, hold your head up high
Because I tell you the truth with all of my
Head and heart, you will rock this world,
Love from Stephanie Louise, 31 years old.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Beauty, beauty, beauty...

At the start of this year, I vowed this would be the year where I’d learn to love my body. For 31 years, I’ve struggled with my shape and size. I’ve dieted, stressed, cried and at times made myself miserable over it. None of which helped. This is not about the right or wrong of my weight; I’m more concerned with how I look at and feel about my body. And how we, as a society support and nourish this view.

Travelling to and living on farms in remote places for the last year has been the most incredible gift imaginable in so many ways, but my self image has been one of the most powerful and unexpected transformations. Separated from most media and advertising, once you step outside that particular fish bowl, you start to see how manufactured that bubble is. I mean, I’ve always known in some part of my mind that the media portrays that women (just using women as an example here, as that’s my personal experience) should look a certain way, and that it’s bullshit. But after 12 months of living away from that message, I finally stopped believing it. Truly. Deeply. And began to see how far reaching and deeply we’ve been brainwashed down that path.

I want to challenge what we conceive of as a beautiful body. Who tells us what’s beautiful? The makeup companies, advertising industries, clothes manufactures, Hollywood and HBO? All of whom stand to make a profit out of your crisis in confidence.If you don’t see the beauty in your body now, you still won’t find it when you’re 20 pounds lighter. If society says my body isn’t beautiful, then I say 'fuck society'. I refuse to accept your definition of beauty any longer.

Around the start of the year, I was lucky enough to meet a couple of amazing and strong women on Cortes Island, who really helped me to question my existing self image and build a new and better one. I began to separate out the facts and opinions around my body – yes, I am overweight – I’m not denying that. But I, me, and only me, hold the power to change the way I think and feel about that. Overweight does not equate unattractive. Overweight does not equate embarrassing. Overweight does not equate failure. Instead of viewing my curves as horrible things I’m ashamed of, I began to embrace them as part of who I am. I’ve had my ups and downs in life, and my body has the scars and lumps and bumps to show it. They’re part of my story. Part of my beauty.

I began to change the way I spoke about my body. I’d always joked about my size in a self-depricating way, but I realise that when you use negative language about yourself, it’s really easy to start believing it. My friend Nico persuaded me to start telling myself every day that I loved my body. And the mind is a funny thing – because soon enough, I did stop hating it. And soon after that, I began to not mind it. Love might still be a step away, but I’m falling deeply into like now.

Another thing that I’ve found to be surprisingly helpful, and massively liberating is being naked. And no, I don’t mean in a rude sense. I mean in a ‘swimming in a river with your friends’, or ‘going in the sauna’ kind of way. Before I came to Canada, this was never something I’d have considered doing because I was so ashamed of my body. And well, I’m British, and we don’t do that. In fact, it wasn’t something that I encountered before I came to Cortes, and then to the Kootenays (both places slightly infamous for their relaxed nature towards public nudity). I realised that the only person who really cared whether I was naked was me. And so I got over my astoundingly massive fear about it, and just got on with it. I embraced the new year with a naked dip in the lake with some friends and a hot tub. And each time I’ve been naked in front of other people, it’s got easier. Each swim, each sauna, each hot springs causes me less anxiety and gives me more confidence in my body.

Equally, my views on femininity have been challenged and altered this year. I’ve never been a makeup-wearing-spending-ages-on-my-hair kind of girl, and while I truly love wearing dresses, they are more likely paired with chunky boots than some heels. I guess I never felt truly feminine, like I was a bit of a failure as a woman. But I’ve come to wholeheartedly believe that femininity has nothing to do with my skincare routine or how much body hair I remove. It’s about embracing who I am as a woman and finding my strength in that; it’s about discovering MY femininity and living that. I love living in Winlaw because nobody genuinely gives a crap if you shave your legs or wear eyeliner or not. I haven’t worn makeup in over 6 months (excluding glitter of course) and didn’t even notice until I just thought about it. I removed the underwire from my bra because I’ve never found an underwired bra that doesn’t cause me significant discomfort and even bruising (and yes, I’ve even been to bravissimo) and have just decided to let my boobs be the shape they are, not the shape they’re ‘supposed’ to be.

And after all of this, I feel so much stronger as a woman. I feel more feminine rather than less, and so much more confident in MY femininity.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to wear makeup or wear a push up bra. But I do believe it’s wrong to tell people they should be doing that to be feminine, or that you’ll never be attractive if you don’t (down with advertising!). It’s your decision what body hair you remove and whether you have a skin care routine or not. If you’re looking for love, and these are make or break things for a partner, maybe they need to challenge what lenses they look at the world through.

So say hello to the new Steph. She looks a lot like the old Steph, but boy does she feel different.